Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Not So Much Bias As...

I may come back and label this Post 4000, even though it's merely close. It is a summary post that touches on a lot of my favorite topics. 

I pass along this essay by Conor Friedersdorf from The Atlantic which attempts an intriguing view of media bias, and why Obama gets a pass.  I think it has some flaws, especially in the overselling of some points, but I will let those be.  There is a lot worth reading there.


My usual caveat when writing about liberals and conservatives is that I am writing primarily about publicly-engaged individuals: that 10-15% of liberals who write for publication or are quick to speak up in everyday conversation, contrasted with a similar percentage of their opposite number.  In this instance I am not.  I am referring just as much to that 20% which often votes with liberals, even though they may have a few conservative or don’t care positions.  On the conservative end, however, I am still talking mostly about that 10-15%.  I hope that doesn’t add too many layers of complexity to keep track of.

This article, plus some references that Sponge-Headed Scienceman made in his post about Hillary’s retirement, touched on a difference in perspective that plays out in our political arguments.  Liberals gravitate to big pictures, summaries, generalities, even if the evidence is vague; conservatives like things that are nailed down and known, even if they are small.  Time and again conservatives have pursued some accusation and stuck with it, only to have liberal politicians wait them out until the general public is just tired of it, considering it unimportant and wanting to move on.  But to conservatives, whether someone is honest or dishonest is important in itself, even if the issue is small.  If you cannot be trusted in small matters, who will put you in charge of large ones?

OTOH, I very much get the liberal perspective here, that it’s the big things that ultimately have the biggest effect. It’s just that big picture things are easier to manage by impression and advertising – there is more room for mischief.  One can hide anything in the tall grass.  You can often dig deep into what your impressions are based on and ultimately find nothing.  Leftover prejudices, misremembered quotes, feelings that one group of politicians cares about people like me while the other doesn’t.  (In fact, you should always, reflexively, reject that line of thinking.) This is related to my contention that liberals are better at picking up social cues, and enforce tribal behavior socially – that liberalism is essentially a social rather than intellectual philosophy. I usually say that with some disdain about the cool kids, or high school, but I genuinely mean it that they are much better at social cues.

Your mind may be going to exceptions to my generalisation, and I can think of some myself – liberals who get obsessed over the details of some small but revealing event, or conservatives who are entirely big picture guys willing to ignore small but revealing events.  Their number is not trivial.  But stick with me on this for a bit.

During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton harangued Bush 41 over the issue of Haitian Boat People.  We weren’t rescuing them.  We usually sent them back.  He would never allow such a thing, because he was kind and compassionate, unlike those evil Republicans.  So right after Clinton’s inauguration, what happened?  Haitians poured into makeshift boats and tried to get to America.  But we still didn’t pick them up and they died, many more than had died before.  Our family remembers because we had a sponsored child in Haiti at the time, and his father was one who was presumed drowned.  Bill Clinton killed those people.  But they were only Haitians. And politicians make nice-sounding promises all the time.  And there weren’t that many.  It was a small thing.  It doesn’t matter.  Why bring it up? Or when Vince Foster killed himself, Hillary and Web Hubbel refused to let the FBI in to investigate his office until they had gone over it.  That is third-world dictator stuff.  But it’s small.  Or requesting 900 FBI files of your political opponents to be delivered to the White House.  More third-world stuff.  But they had excuses, and however threadbare, it allowed the whole thing to be passed off as small.  And proof is elusive.  So when Republicans finally did have proof late in Clinton’s second term, it was deeply important to them.  They had proof of him lying, had him dead to rights. Even when the public grew tired of it, even as the narrative was gradually changed to being all about whether he had sex with an intern or not, they couldn’t drop it.

Cue also John Kerry’s CIA hat and even his war decorations; where Hillary got her name; Al Gore’s deceptions in An Inconvenient Truth; Obama refusing to give up the information on Kevin Johnson’s charity, or lying about what he had been hearing in church all those years.  We can list the lies about "small matters" all day.  To conservatives, these are keys to character – they matter.  On the recent Benghazi question – Hillary claims it is a small matter exactly why the embassy was attacked.  Move on.  That’s just insane.  It’s of enormous importance, and getting the best handle on that is one of her main jobs.  But it’s only a few people.  And it’s a screwy little country.  And it was a one-off event, not ongoing.  To liberals, these are about small stuff – they don’t matter.  Even on the notorious birth certificate (BTW conservatives always have to preface whatever they say about that by stating they believe Obama was indeed born in Hawaii, and I do, and always did, so I do say it) the long form document is still not the document from 1960.  It’s the best that hospital or jurisdiction has for him, and similar to the best that many other Americans have to prove they were born here.  But it is recreated from the 1960 document, not xeroxed.  The 1960 document no longer exists. And through the whole thing, the question from conservatives – even from those who didn’t doubt in the least that he was born here – was “why the hell doesn’t he just tell the truth?  Just say that’s all there is and that it's not unusual?” It would not particularly occur to conservatives to say “he’s being evasive, but that’s probably not significant. It’s not that big a deal.” 

Yet to liberals, that was the point.  It’s a damn birth certificate.  You’re just using this as a way of managing the larger impression that he’s not really American enough.  No, that’s what you would do in their shoes. That’s projection.  Yes, conservatives clearly are more willing to believe such things if they don’t think someone seems American enough; but they really are upset about exactly what they say they are.  They want to know if he’s cheating.  They want to know if he’s lying.  Because that would matter.  Even if it’s about something small.

That flips to the other side in managing impressions about conservatives.  Bush lied, millions died. Conservatives need to get a life and stop worrying about screwing interns, because we’re talking about war and death here.  

Except that the word “lie” has a real meaning which we’ve all known since elementary school, and the Bush Admin’s claims, however wrong or blind or foolish you might find them to be, don’t qualify.  Yet see how the ground has shifted?  Precision of meaning doesn’t matter.   War and people dying matter.  If the word “lie” is overblown political rhetoric, so what?  As soon as a congresswoman is shot, it’s immediately part of a larger issue of right-wing extremists being dangerous.  Except the actual truth was different.  Children are shot in Connecticut, and within minutes it’s about a national conversation on gun control. (Yes, to some that’s just opportunism, never letting a crisis go to waste, but most liberals weren’t going there because of deviousness. Leaping to the generality is how they think.)  The facts aren’t going to matter.  Details, details.  What matters is that we have to do something on a national level to feel better.  Big picture.

I’m a summariser, a generaliser, a big picture guy myself.  I grew up as a liberal, and in many ways that is my natural tribe (I also have an obsessive streak that pulls me out of that impression-only crowd, but that’s a long story).  Perhaps I don’t quite get the basic attitude of liberals as well as I think , but I get some of it.  Having perspective is indeed important.  Not getting bogged down in details or circling in cul-de-sacs is important. Big picture.  General understanding.  Avoid pedantry. That’s not an insane approach.

It’s just a very dangerous one.


Which leads to yet another interesting, related, but tangential issue: Do some forms of media favor one cast of mind over another?  As all POV’s seem to use all media with some success but some limitation, the difference will not be absolute.  But is there a trend? Yup. Print versus visual.

If my generalisation above is true, then visual media will be the more natural ground for liberals.  If it is impression that you want, a picture is worth a thousand words and all that.  Much has been made over the years of three iconic photographs* from the Vietnam era that were very powerful in moving public opinion, even though the facts were different, or even in opposition to the three impression created.  Conservatives have certainly had their go at visual media over the decades, but their strength there has been playing to heartland and patriotic images. When they attempt to use visual media to criticise, they gravitate to lists, long captions, lengthy quotes that are supposed to be damning.

Which they might be, if anyone were paying attention that long.  Liberals can still use content-dominated media, such as newspapers, essay mags, or radio, but they usually have to resort to anecdote or snarky humor to do so. (I’m lookin’ at you, NPR, New Yorker, NYT.) You will notice that in all those cases, their other content is just naturally more balanced, even though they are liberal publications. Exposes of politicians, industries, or agencies are speaking conservatives’ language, even when they have conservative targets.  It’s the innuendo – the condemned-without-a-hearing aspects that are more efficient for liberals.  I have never watched more than a clip from Fox News, and seldom see any other news clips either, from any source.  But I’m betting that however good they are at impression and innuendo, they just aren’t as good at it as the other outlets.  I’m betting they always have a whiff of lameness about them, of guys in last-year’s fashions trying to pick up chicks. And if they are attempting snark humor to make political points, I’m betting it often falls a little flat.

I recall reading years ago that households that took two newspapers voted more conservatively than those which took one (and much more than those that took none), even if the newspapers leaned left.  Magazines cover the range from much print to captions only, so generalise there in vain.

When the country switched from newspapers to TV for news, it became more liberal, even though the papers weren’t conservative, and TV had much stricter censorship about what could be said and who could speak.  Networks were very worried about backlash and offending large swaths of Americans.  I doubt the trend was cause as much as something associated and self-reinforcing.

Related note:  See also both traditional and modern popular Christian content, as that crowd has some overlap with conservatives.  It still tends strongly to books.  It is still completely outclassed by its secular counterparts in visual and imagistic influence. There is some more success with music qua music, but Christian crossover usually succeeds on sentiment and nostalgia, where it still holds considerable edge.

*Shooting the wincing Vietnamese killer at point-blank range;  Naked children fleeing napalm; Kent State.


bs king said...

So to connect it to my most recent post, is the media biased against conservatives, or against traits conservatives tend to have?

Sam L. said...

Tried to read it; gave up. Do lefties really diss Da Won for not being liberal enough? Not that I noticed before the election. Gave a pass = totally ignored; or, solidarity uber alles.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Bethany - because there is such consistent documentation that the individuals involved have left-of-center views, one has to assume that it's in there somewhere. But your alternative suggestion has support. Try to imagine a conservative taking the David Letterman/Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert approach. PJ O'Rourke (who originally trained as a liberal) can do it, some of Rush Limbaugh's humor is sorta kinda like that, but mostly not. That superior, tone-of-voice, finding everything ridiculous style doesn't fit conservatives as well. But it fits TV great.

Also, there is the challenging entrenched authority mode that plays well in media. We show our courage and independence by questioning Big Pharma, being suspicious of Big Oil, Big Religion. As liberals become the entrenched authorities more and more that may change, but I haven't seen that yet.

Any other strands?

james said...

If we follow McLuhan: hot media demand little input from the consumer (interesting phrase, "media consumer"), but cool media demand more conscious participation. Why he would say movies are "hot" and TV "cool" I can't imagine... it has been a long time since I read the book.

Assuming he bobbled it and TV is really (as the term "couch potato" suggests) a "hot" medium that doesn't require a lot of user involvement, then the mapping is cleaner; the "cool" media require more thought while the "hot" media train us not to think but respond.

The net is ambiguous, since you can spend your time reading thoughtful posts or reading "TV tropes" (or lol-cats).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks for reminding me to go over to lol-cats